Students (and many adults) cannot tell fact from fiction online. Here’s how to help (Opinion)


If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably heard students share something they learned on TikTok or Instagram and thought, “That doesn’t seem right. …” Sometimes these stories are light-hearted and mocked. Other times, they shape how students perceive the world and their place in it.

For example, students share what they heard on social media about the war in Ukraine. Some stories are true, but some are dubious or completely made up. As community members and future voters, students should be able to distinguish fact from fiction and high-quality sources from propaganda. As teachers, we have the opportunity, even the obligation, to help.

However, such help may not be widespread. In a recent survey conducted by Common Sense Media, less than 4 in 10 K-12 teachers in the United States said they teach students to evaluate online information..

Even students who receive such instructions can get advice that was truer when we connected to the Internet through dial-up modems:

Websites that end in dot-org are more reliable than dot-com.

If a site looks professional, it’s probably more trustworthy.

The “About” page will tell you everything you need to know about a website.

These and other evaluative shortcuts, what I call weak heuristic, no longer serves us well. Anyone can now register a dot-org domain. The design of a site has no direct link with its reliability. Authors and organizations can describe themselves however they wish, including misleadingly, on their “About” pages. These shortcuts falter because they rely on features that have one thing in common: they’re controlled by a site’s creator. This designer can put these features together to create the impression they want.

Yet students continue to rely on weak heuristics to decide what to trust online. How come? As a student I recently interviewed, I said when I asked why she thought dot-org websites were more reliable than dot-coms: “That’s all I was really taught.”

In many cases, students’ assumptions about the Internet are no different from those of adults. When Sam Wineburg and I studied how professional fact-checkers, history teachers, and students evaluated information, many of these teachers used a similar approach, which was very similar to that of their students. They stayed on unknown websites and tried to make decisions about what to trust using weak heuristics. They often missed. It turns out that, unless we’ve been explicitly taught, none of us are very good at evaluating information online.

This means we need to create opportunities for students to learn to assess digital content in K-12 grades. It also means that teachers need opportunities to learn on their own. Otherwise, teachers may encourage evaluative shortcuts that may lead students astray.. As a researcher and teacher educator, I am committed to understanding and developing ways to help teachers learn effective assessment strategies themselves and plan how to respond to the approaches their students bring. in class. But students aren’t going to stop learning on social media in the meantime. What can teachers do in their classrooms right now?

What can teachers do in their classrooms right now?

First, help students learn to stop relying on approaches that we know can lead to erroneous conclusions. The approaches that students have relied on (or been taught) in the past are insufficient for the Internet we inhabit today. We can demonstrate how these weak heuristics break down.

Students may be drawn to a TikTok video that has racked up thousands of likes and claims to show heart-pounding scenes from the war in Ukraine, but was actually filmed in 2014. Students may want to shut down a website explaining the roots of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. because it has a dot-com domain and basic design when in fact the site is backed by an authoritative organization and written by an author with relevant expertise. Such examples will help students understand that they cannot gauge the trustworthiness of a site or social media post just by looking at it.

Second, help students replace weak heuristics with stronger approaches. Students must learn that the most effective way to decide whether to trust online content is, paradoxically, to leave it. In the study conducted with professional fact checkers, professors and students, we observed that fact checkers invest little time in unknown sites.

Instead, these experts investigated the sources in side reading: They opened new browser tabs and did a quick search for more information on the source or claims made. Teaching lateral reading doesn’t take a lot of time, and we have proof that it makes a difference. For example, if a student mentions something they saw on social media, take a few minutes to view the post and discuss how to investigate its veracity. There are many ideas in the free Civic Online Reasoning lessons and assessments, which I helped create with the Stanford History Education Group.

As misinformation about new crises spreads, the urgency to help students evaluate information online increases. Let’s help students learn to make sense of the information bombarding them. A clear first step is to make sure we don’t teach them shortcuts that we know don’t serve them well.

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